Have you ever wondered why our intense conversations within evangelicalism about politics, character, and voting almost never end up citing major figures in church history? These are pretty important debates, after all. Navigating the moral failures of elected officials and choosing some sinners rather than others to wield authority over the public square seems like a fairly serious intertwining of Christian ethics, Christian social theory, Christian forgiveness/repentance, and even Christian eschatology. There’s a lot going on in the question of why a Roy Moore or Donald Trump may or may not be a suitable choice for a believer. And yet most of what is brought up as wisdom is radically contemporary. Is 2,000 years of Christian thought and church praxis just insufficient to shed light on the Republican and Democratic Party?
I have a theory as to why.
Behind the “lesser of two evils” debate stands an unspoken but very real theology of work. Most American Christians do not feel that the moral demands of the gospel comprehensively inform how they labor. Their “on the job” performance is one sphere. Their spiritual life is another. To borrow one equally unfortunate phrase, work and faith are considered non-overlapping magisterium. For many evangelicals especially, the paradigms of the gospel, the teachings of Christ, the narrative sweep of Scripture, and the mission of the church are singularly vertical concerns between them and their Creator, and possibly them and their pastor. Practically, these truths make next to zero difference in how—and why—they carry out their 9-to-5 existence.
So, when you try to tell an evangelical Republican that character counts, and that not even a pro-life politician is automatically worthy of a vote if there is credible, serious allegations against his moral character, you are asking him to apply a standard to this politician that he does not even apply to himself. Evangelicalism’s politics are downstream from their praxis; because there is no viable theology of work, because most evangelicals view how they do their job, how they interact with subordinates and superiors, and why they labor at all as a self-referential sphere disconnected from the euangelion, demanding that they connect New Testament ethics to politicians sounds ridiculous. What the President of the United States says about women shouldn’t affect our judgment of whether or not he can be a good president. What a senatorial candidate did in his car or at the mall years ago with underaged women doesn’t mean he’d be a bad senator. Of course, you might not want either of those men are your pastor or even your son-in-law. But that doesn’t remotely affect how they’d do as your president, does it?
This hard detachment of role from revelation is what, I think, the great figures of church history would have found stunning. Listen to what these church history giants have to say about the relationship between a civic ruler’s character and the actual consequences of his reign:
“The studies and character of priests and bishops are a potent factor in this matter, I admit, but not nearly so much so as are those of princes. Men are more ready to decry the clergy if they sin than they are to emulate them in their good points. So it is that monks who are really pious do not excite people to follow their example because they seem only to be practicing what they preach. But on the other hand, if they are sinful everyone is shocked beyond measure. But there is no one who is not stimulated to follow in the footsteps of his prince! For this very reason the prince should take special care not to sin, because he makes so many followers in his wrongdoings, but rather to devote himself to being virtuous so that so many more good men may result.”
Augustine argued that a king has to be master of himself before he can master people, and should “prefer mastery over their base desires” to lordship of nations. Christian rulers rule well when they “offer to their true God the sacrifice of humility and mercy and prayer” for their sins.
What both Erasmus and Augustine assume here is a close, even inexorable connection between the duties of the magistrate and the magistrate’s soul. This is not a theology of labor that you hear in modern evangelicalism, particularly in parts of the country where “God and country” civil religion has played tentpole to an un-virtuous capitalism. What would the chagrin of Christian business owners be like if their local church elders had knowledge of how they treated their employees, and possessed the theology to confront them with the demands of their faith in all aspects of their life?
What’s missing from all these debates about politicians and virtue is the voice of our religious forefathers. If we hear it, we will have to admit that it cuts deeply against the grain of our personal autonomy and theological poverty. Even more startling: It sounds nothing like Fox News.